Global Ethica: Japan, the Jesuits, and One of the Rarest Books in the World

Mercator - Japan

Japan (Mercator Hondius 1623), from Map and Maps

Do you ever dream of finding a forgotten treasure in your attic? Something of the kind happened to me. As I found out together with professor Katja Triplett, one of the volumes in the Ethica section (Herzog August Bibliothek, Wolfenbüttel, A: 57.13 Eth.), a Japanese translation of Thomas a Kempis’ „Imitation of Christ“, is among the rarest books in the world. (Prof. Triplett repots the finding in the latest issue of the Journal of Jesuit Studies).

Books ore not simply books, although our modern world might seem to suggest otherwise. In times of mass print and digital editions we tend to forget that books are important cultural artefacts. They are, as historians have long argued, individual items with their own „biographies“, and they have their own incredible stories to tell. The exemplar of the 1596 Japanese „Contemptus Mundi“ edition in the Ethica section of the Herzog August Library is such a book.
Modry_mauritiusThe Jesuits’ Japanese prints are among the rarest books in the world, and they are very hard to find, even if they are catalogued. It’s a bit like finding another exemplar of the Blue Mauritius, or, for the younger generations, a Legendary Pokémon in your mom’s kitchen. Just to give you the picture: In the case of the „Contemptus Mundi“ edition in question, we know of only two extant copies, one in the Bodleian Library in Oxford, one in the Biblioteca Ambrosiana in Milan. Therefore, the Herzog August Bibliothek’s copy is only the third one known world-wide! Moreover, the Wolfenbüttel copy is the best preserved among the three, and the librarians have done a great work cataloging the book. They have also made a digital copy of the book available.

Dinner Conversations, or The Logic of Discovery

How did this great discovery come about? As so often in the academic world, over a dinner conversation. For while I was aware of the existence of a book in Japanese language in the Ethica section, I had no clue about it. (I am tempted to use the phrase „no clue as usual“ here – maybe one of the great things about my project is that I do not have to feign omniscience.) Luckily, I came to sit with professor Katja Triplett, who had given a great talk at the Lichtenberg that day. After my second glass of wine, I ventured to mention „my“ Japanese book to her, and was surprised that she was actually interested. So I sobered up and invited her to Wolfenbüttel.
Looking at the book together, and listening to her explanations, I slowly realized that we had come across a quite momentous discovery. In general, to find an edition of the „Contemptus Mundi“ is not something very special. The work is commonly known under the title „The Imitation of Christ“ (De imitatione Christi) and usually ascribed to the canon regular Thomas a Kempis (c. 1380-1471). It counts among the best known books of Christian devotion between the late Middle Ages and the early modern period, with an incredible number of manuscript copies and book editions.

Printing Christian Books in Japan

The Jesuit translation into Japanese is a different thing, however. While the many European editions shed light on the history of spirituality and devotion in early modern Europe, the dispersed Japanese volumes reflect the fortunes and misfortunes of the Jesuits’ mission to Japan. (They form the historical background of the Martin Scorcese movie, Silence.)
According to the numbers, the mission was highly successful. As Markus Friedrich writes in his recent book on the Jesuits, in 1626 around 800 000 Japanese had converted to Christendom. From the beginning, however, ongoing struggles with the local political authorities were taking place. The Jesuits arrived in 1549, and as early as in 1587, an edict was promulgated that expelled the missionaries, so they had to go underground. In 1597, more than twenty Christians were crucified, among them three Japanese Jesuits. They would become known as the twenty-six martyrs of Japan. In 1612 and 1614, new anti-Christian laws followed.
Titel 57-13The history of the Christian printing press in Japan, the Kirishitan-ban, is closely combined with these events. In 1587, the same year the edict against the Jesuits was promulgated, scholars presented the first volume to Alessandro Valignano SJ, the order’s visitor in Japan. The Wolfenbüttel volume was printed in 1596, just one year before the crucifixions in Nagasaki, in one of the most troubled years for the Jesuit mission in Japan. Although the situation became better after 1598, the Jesuits’ printing efforts lasted only until 1620, still producing a considerable amount of books. Every single print run included 1300-1500 copies, and many titles had multiple editions.

Why is there so little left, then?

From 1626 onwards, Christians were persecuted, and the mere possession of religious items, including printed books, counted as heresy. Therefore, „what Kirishitan-ban texts remain today … largely survived by having been sent abroad, prior to or during the persecution,“ writes Yoshimi Orii, professor at Keio University in Tokyo, an expert on Jesuit books printed in Japan: „the corpus currently verified in Japan … comprises only nineteen volumes of sixteen separate titles“.
Efforts to track the remaining volumes started with the Jesuit Johannes Laures (1891-1959), founder of the Kirishitan Bunko Library (KBL) at Sophia University in Tokyo, now available as an online database. The KBL, however, is incomplete. There have been significant revisions by Makita Tominaga and, as recent as in 2013, by Masayuki Toyoshima, but neither of them was aware of the copy in the Herzog August Bibliothek. So far, the number of Kirishitan-ban totaled forty-one. The Wolfenbüttel exemplar raises this number to forty-two.

How did the volume end up in Wolfenbüttel?

The Wolfenbüttel „Contemptus“ is exceptional in another aspect, too. Normally, the provenance of Kirishitan-ban is quite difficult to establish. In the case of the copy in the Herzog August Bibliothek, however, we have a precious hint. As I first checked the volume, I came across a short handwritten note accompanying the volume. It reads:
Most serene Duke,
Most clement Prince,
present book, although in Japanese language, is printed with Latin types. Its argument is the contempt of the world, and perhaps the followers of Ignatius of Loyola [i.e. the Jesuit order] has printed it in the preceding century in order to bring these people to the Popish religion [i.e. to Catholicism]. From time to time, there are quotations from the bible, taken from the Vulgata version of the Latin bible that they [the Catholics] think of as the authentic one. Therefore, the book might be entitled: Treatise on the Contempt of the World in Japanese language, printed under the auspices of the Society of Jesus.
Most humbly,
on the third of July, 1662

The note also allows to establish the time that has passed between the acquisition of the book, in 1662, and the time it finally found its way into Duke August’s book wheel catalogue. As can be reconstructed from the invaluable research in Maria von Katte the entry on page 6943 stems from 1690-91, almost thirty years later, and 25 years after the demise of Duke August! (Maria von Katte, “Herzog August und die Kataloge seiner Bibliothek”, in Wolfenbütteler Beiträge. Aus den Schätzen der Herzog August Bibliothek, ed. Paul Raabe, vol. 1 (Frankfurt am Main: Vittorio Klostermann, 1972), 168-199, here 182.)

Ethica 57-13 Entry

Entry in the Book Wheel Catalogue, p. 6943, by Johann Thiele Reinerding, first secretary since 1684

Although there is still research to be done, this is a good starting point for further research. Who was the author of the handwritten bill? What does it tell us about the practice of book collecting? Why was it put into the Ethica section, and not in Theologica?

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